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Independent Lens: Men Who Swim

"The Stockholm Art Swim Gents is a protest against the meaninglessness of life,"says one member of Sweden's men's synchronized swim team.

Independent Lens: Men Who Swim

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jonas Beckman, Rickard Friberg, Lars Kumlin, HenrikLundgren, Lenart Ploom, Kata Bachry, Jane Magnusson Pompe Hedengren
Network: PBS
Director: Dylan Williams
Air date: 2011-01-04

"The Stockholm Art Swim Gents is a protest against the meaninglessness of life," says Rickard Friberg. Leaning across his desk, he goes on, "And if you have a normal boring job -- I've been a meat buyer for years -- then this was essential." Reflecting on his commitment to the Swedish men's synchronized swim team, Rickard is partly insistent and partly philosophical. Certainly, as he suggests, it's a respite from buying meat. At the same time, as the documentary, Men Who Swim, reveals, it's also a means to fitness, identity, and community.

At least that's the attitude taken by filmmaker and Rickard's fellow swimmer Dylan Williams. A transplant from Wales to Stockholm -- "for love," he discloses, over glimpses of his lovely wife and young children -- Williams is feeling a bit dislocated when he stumbles on the Art Swim Gents. Unable to find work as a filmmaker in Sweden and weary of working odd jobs, he shares a bit of Rickard's frustration concerning the "meaninglessness of life." "I guess," he says, "We all felt the same and needed something a little different." The swim team is that: it is different.

At first, Williams is drawn at first to the routine, however lax, the weekly training sessions, the camaraderie in the locker room. And though he doesn't discuss it on camera, his decision to film his experience not only shapes his feelings about the team, but also, of course, your understanding of it. His 2008 movie, trimmed from 70 minutes to 55 for its Independent Lens debut this week, walks a fine line between sentimental and shrewd. While it makes some obvious visual allusions -- when things are going badly, Williams appears underwater, sinking -- it also maintains a mischievous sense of itself as a film about men on a synchronized swim team.

That's not to say the film belabors the fact that synchronized swimming is typically a "women's sport." In fact, the men are "serious" about what they're doing, as observed by their first coach, Jane Magnussen, a journalist who's written a book about the sport. She discusses the team while having her toes manicured, at "Nail Art," where the décor is very pink. When Williams notes, "It wasn't long before we started thinking we knew it all," Jane's voice breaks in: "They're very unfocused swimmers," she says. "That's the biggest obstacle they face."

Indeed, much of the early training is rendered as a jumble of images: splashing, smiling, some occasional synchronizing. As they argue over whether to wear wetsuits (a bit inelegant, and not exactly the preferred outfit for "serious" teams), Williams muses, "No one seemed to care that even after a year of practice, we were far from perfect." The novelty of the men's team earns them some "gigs," and so they perform locally, their formations vaguely sloppy and also sweet, audiences only partly interested. "At first," Jane says, "I talked with the men the way I usually talk with men: I was a bit flirty and overtly charming. But it doesn’t work if one has to be the trainer. One has to be strong and yell at them and not just stand there and be cute." As she pauses, you can hear the sound of toenails being filed.

When the team hears of a competition -- an unofficial World Cup for men's synchronized swimming in Milan -- they find a focus. Jane suggests they bring in a coach they actually pay, devote themselves to actual fitness and devise a precise routine. Their new coach, Kata Bachry, takes the men to task: she makes them do drills, tread water, and perform lifts. They begin to take shape as a team.

While the documentary traces this plainly formulaic story of a team coming together, it uncovers another set of stories as well: in pursuing a more organized experience in the water, the men find themselves outside the pool as well. Certainly, this is the way Williams describes his life: when he loses his part-time job (his boss informs him, "We've decided you don't have a future with us"), when the family cat eats a "rubber monster," and when the costs of home improvements become overwhelming ("Everyone I knew," he says, "was obsessed with renovating their kitchen"), he questions his priorities. Fretting over his roles as a good husband and teammate in the sauna at the gym, Williams is reassured by a teammate, who says simply, "It'll work itself out."

Indeed. Exploring the balance between meaning and meaninglessness, Men Who Swim is at once low-key and upbeat. Williams gets a job teaching film (to students who can't be bothered to come to class on time, even as he describes his passion for the art form) and so, he notes, he can afford the hotel in Milan. Here the team competes with teams from Japan, Spain, Italy, and Germany, among other nations, each seeming more impressively skilled and trained than the Art Swim Gents. No matter. As Williams puts it, the team is a means to something else, much like the film: "I could stop worrying about where I was going," he says, "And start appreciating where I was."


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